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Norwalk Council Puts Off Appointment in Light of Possible Legal Challenge

May 21, 1987|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — Instead of swearing-in the man they agreed should be their newest colleague, city council members Tuesday put the appointment on hold for one week.

Faced with a possible legal challenge from The Los Angeles Times--which complained that the state's open-government law was violated last week when the City Council unexpectedly named Luigi A. Vernola to replace Cecil N. Green--councilmen held a 25-minute closed-door meeting and then announced that they will vote on the replacement next Tuesday.

But council members left little doubt that Vernola, a 42-year-old gasoline station and auto shop owner, will still be their choice.

"I've got a little scoop for you," Councilman Robert E. White told a reporter, "Vernola is in like a burglar."

A popular planning commissioner, Vernola was appointed to the council last Thursday, less than 48 hours after Green won a special election in the 33rd state Senate District.

The council defended its action, saying it did not have time to notify the public because there was an urgent need to name a new member. With city budget hearings beginning soon, council members said they had to make a quick decision to give their new colleague a chance to learn the issues.

But Nancy Richman, a staff counsel for The Times, informed city officials before Tuesday's meeting that the newspaper intended to file a formal complaint because the public should have been notified before last week's meeting that the council intended to select a replacement.

Public Notice Required

California's open-government law requires all elected bodies to give public notice of any action they plan to take, except if an emergency exists that requires immediate action or two-thirds of the governing body agrees to consider an item not on the agenda. The requirement for public notice was strengthened in amendments to the law in January. The agenda for last Thursday's meeting made no mention of the appointment or the possibility it would be discussed.

Richman said Green's victory in the state Senate race creating the council vacancy did not constitute an emergency. And it is unclear whether the council actually took a vote to add Vernola's appointment to the agenda.

Even if there was a two-thirds vote to add the item, Richman said she believes the action would have violated the intent of the open-government law because of the far-reaching importance of naming a new council member in the city of nearly 90,000 people.

If the public is properly notified this week about the decision to name a new council member at next Tuesday's meeting, Richman said, The Times would not pursue its complaint against the city.

Richman said it was the selection process, not the man chosen, that concerned the newspaper. " . . . The appointment of a new council member by its very nature has important political implications well beyond the immediate action . . . They did not need to take such quick action. Waiting several more days would not have made much difference in how the city functions or does business," she said.

J. Kenneth Brown, Norwalk city attorney, said he advised the council during its closed-door session Tuesday to delay Vernola's appointment. Swearing Vernola in, Brown said, would have "cast a shadow" over any future actions by the council if the courts eventually overturned Vernola's appointment.

"In view of the threat of a lawsuit . . . the action that seems the fairest to this community, this council and Mr. Vernola is to take no action and schedule it as a first order of business next Tuesday," Brown told an overflow crowd at City Hall after Tuesday night's executive session.

"The other option is to go ahead (make the appointment) and run the risk of a lawsuit," he said, " . . . and basically cloud actions of this City Council over the next 30, 60 or 90 days."

When Vernola was named to replace Green a week ago, only the council, several city staff members and a handful of spectators were present.

At the meeting, Mayor Margaret I. (Peg) Nelson and Councilman Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez pushed for Vernola's selection. Rodriguez said the council had to move quickly to fill the vacancy because of pressing city business--the budget, redevelopment and labor negotiations with employee groups--that need the attention of a full council.

"We could not afford to wait," Rodriguez, a longtime friend of Vernola's, said in an interview Monday. "We wanted to give the new council member as much time as possible to jump in and get familiar with the job . . . It was urgent."

Nelson supported Rodriguez saying, "We were elected to make tough decisions . . . so we went ahead with it . . . recognizing that there might be some backlash."

Council members White and Grace Napolitano eventually agreed to appoint Vernola, but not before Napolitano questioned whether the action was proper.

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